Dean of the faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
The coronavirus pandemic has brought long-standing health inequities to the fore, from access issues to racial disparities. And as frontline clinicians tend to COVID’s acute-care cases, public-health advocates such as Dr. Michelle Williams are having a moment.
Williams, a renowned epidemiologist and public health scientist, hasn’t been shy about seizing it. She has leveraged the increased attention around health imbalances to eloquently and powerfully garner more attention for causes such as preventive health and social determinants of health.
In June, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, she issued a statement that Floyd’s death was more than a grave injustice. Rather, she characterized it as “a gut-wrenching consequence of what we in the public health community know all too well, and a reality that people of color are confronted with every day: Racism is a public health crisis.”
As Williams pointed out, police brutality should be included alongside other disparities in healthcare, such as pollution exposure, access to green space and a lack of nutritious food and educational opportunities that have prematurely ended lives in marginalized communities. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has newly laid these inequities bare for all Americans to see, the underlying injustices have endured for generations,” she wrote.
This concern extends to her academic role. Because minority students can face hurdles to securing admission, last year Williams launched a pilot program at the Chan School. It had twin goals: to enroll more underrepresented students in the school
of public health and to provide them with a strong foundation toward studying for a doctorate. The program provides full tuition, health insurance, a stipend and mentoring by a senior faculty member.
A Princeton grad who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from the Chan School, Williams joined the faculty after a distinguished career at the University of Washington School of Public Health, where she rose through the faculty ranks to become a full professor of epidemiology in 2000. She became dean of Harvard’s school of public health in July 2016 after a stint as chair and professor of its department of epidemiology.
Those skills are coming in handy now. Amid the twin crises of COVID-19 and social unrest, Williams has been one of the most pronounced voices of leadership. She has emphasized social determinants of health in media appearances, too, with one outlet describing her as “bringing preventive health and wellness to the masses.”